The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Darwin's Island, Darwin's Cause

An enthusiastic review in The Sunday Times of two new books on Darwin, one by geneticist Steve Jones and one by Darwin biographers Desmond and Moore:
Besides disclosing the beautiful ingenuities of Darwin's thought, Jones updates Darwin's science. With dazzling versatility he traverses the field of modern genetics to show how evolutionary theory has become fact, and how DNA evidence, together with the fossil record, has allowed Darwin's speculations about past biological events to be confirmed, extended and given approximate dates.[...] As Jones accumulates his evidence, the vision of the relatedness of all life becomes more and more breathtaking. I have never read a book that made me gasp with amazement so often.

[...] Darwin's Sacred Cause is prodigiously researched and propelled by its own excitements, though they are political as much as scientific. Their argument is that Darwin was driven not simply by a zeal for scientific knowledge but by a moral passion. His motive was hatred of black slavery and the cruelties it sanctioned. [...] Darwin's Sacred Cause does not question Darwin's scientific integrity, but illustrates his hatred of cruelty. In that respect it examines a particular aspect of the sympathy with other organisms - human, animal and plant - that Jones's book explores with such bravura.
As the man himself said, there is grandeur in this view of life.


Darwin has also given us the good new that


in case anyone missed it. The egg that hatched the first chicken was laid by a hen not quite like our current-day hens, but a forebear to them.

Looking forward to reading Jones' new book, I picked up a copy of Almost Like A Whale from my ex-in-laws a while back and it was a great read, if occasionally meandering.

Been slowly introducing one of my flatmates to the wonders of modern writing on evolution and related topics, she just finished The Red Queen and is working on The Ancestor's Tale. I've got the 'just imparted wisdom' glow about me :)

Didn't the guy who wrote the Red Queen have to crawling cap in hand for a government bail-out for the bank he worked for? This, after being a firm advocate of capitalism red in tooth and claw.

Ken, I recall saying somewhere that you'd considered writing a piece on the attitudes of the left-wing sects to Darwinism (IIRC), but decided not to on the grounds of their essential irrelevance. I'd like to see something like that someday, irrelevant or not. . .

Matt Ridley did work as a non-executuive chairman for Northern Rock, according to Wikipedai.

What I had thought of was writing about how the SWP's attitude to Dawkins had changed over twenty-five years. Or rather, after 25 years, which is approximately how long it took before Alec Callinicos deigned to read more of The Selfish Gene than the title. I have the evidence in back issues of their journal, and I could write it up, but what's the point?

I'd be interested in your wider thoughts (never mind the quality, feel the width) on the subject of the relationship between Marx, Marxism and Darwin (the first two in that list being not quite identical).

Is Professor C's philistinism a mere consequence of having drunk the SWP kool-aid, or might it have roots beyond the boundaries of that sect?

If you ask me, far too much has been made of any connection between Darwin's theory and Marx/Marxism (or Nazism, etc). Any connections between natural selection and political systems usually stem for drastic misunderstandings or sheer ignorance of the former but natural selection ends up shouldering the blame regardless. Marx would have reached virtually the same conclusions without Darwin having published a single word so any connection is coincidental at best.

And I can't say I give a hoot about Matt Ridley's involvement with finance, it doesn't alter the quality of his science writing one iota.

You're entirely right there, Mr. Jones (I suppose only your friends call you 'cannonball', yes?).

At least as far as Darwin himself goes. But there are still a lot of soi-disant 'Darwinists' running around who have let their political ideology get the better of their science.

The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who is himself a keen advocate of biological and Darwinian explanations of human behaviour, has had a devil of a time trying to persuade people that the Yanomamo indians he studied do not engage in warfare and raiding to capture women (they do engage in warfare and raiding, alright, but not for that reason, as Tooby and Cosmides apparently suggest; and Chagnon is probably a better source for that one, having spent a total of 60 months among the Yanomamo).

Just as Marx had to say 'as for me, I'm not a Marxist', Darwin might well have said 'as for me I'm not a 'Darwinist''.

And if Matt Ridley and others are taking political positions from his science (rightly or wrongly) and those positions are still out there in the world, then I think it is still legitimate to think about the possible connections between *certain interpretations* of Darwinism and certain other political positions that try to use Darwin's Victorian beard as a fig-leaf for their reactionary goals. Thinking about those connections would have to recognise the fact that, as you point out, Darwin himself was very much traduced and distorted by those who followed him and claimed to act in his name. The philistinism Ken was talking about is obviously incompatible with that recognition. Hence my interest.

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